3.5 out of 5: The Elegance of the Hedgehog is a charming novel featuring an odd pair of protagonists. Renée, a widowed 54-year-old concierge for a luxury apartment building in Paris, is self-described as “short, ugly and plump” and is self-schooled in philosophy and literature. Renée’s story alternates with journal entries by Paloma, a precocious 12-year-old tenant in Renée’s building who plans to commit suicide on her 13th birthday to avoid the meaninglessness of life. Both Renée and Paloma view themselves as outsiders and hide their intellectual pursuits from their small-minded fellow tenants.
At times, Renee’s philosophical musings Paloma’s wordy essays stall this book’s momentum, particularly near the beginning of the book. Once a new tenant moves into the building and upsets the status quo, however, things start to get interesting. This amusing novel, deftly translated from the French by Alison Anderson, is lighthearted in style but not in substance. Despite its dark themes of death, suicide, and loneliness, The Elegance of the Hedgehog is oddly life-affirming and teaches us that no life is inconsequential.
Check back in about a month for a review of Gourmet Rhapsody, the novel Muriel Barbery wrote before The Elegance of the Hedgehog. An English translation of Gourmet Rhapsody will be published in the U.S. on August 25th.